Bright sparks must think big

Life at the cutting-edge is tough for inventors. Yet Britain remains a powerhouse of creativity
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The Independent Online

Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If the ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats," said Howard Aitken. But if the idea has real commercial potential, then it's probably better to ignore Aitken's advice and hot-foot it down to the Patent Office. This is especially true if your product is acknowledged by both the Design Council and Tony Blair, and showcased at the Millennium Dome.

Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If the ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats," said Howard Aitken. But if the idea has real commercial potential, then it's probably better to ignore Aitken's advice and hot-foot it down to the Patent Office. This is especially true if your product is acknowledged by both the Design Council and Tony Blair, and showcased at the Millennium Dome.

Such prestigious recognition was awarded to a wide variety of products last year, following Mr Blair's challenge to UK-based companies to demonstrate that Britain is the creative powerhouse of the world. At the Millennium Dome last December, the Prime Minister rewarded 1,012 "visionary" products and services that met the challenge with Millennium Product status.

One award winner, Weston Medical, spent five years researching and developing cheap, needle-free injection technology. The resulting device, Intraject, which is only marginally more expensive to produce than a conventional hypodermic syringe, is the size of a ballpoint pen and comes pre-filled with medicine.

The device uses a gas-powered injector and is foolproof to use, so that patients can safely self-inject without the worry of using a needle. The patient applies light pressure to deliver medicine painlessly through the skin in less than five seconds. International pharmaceutical companies have been quick to spot Intraject's potential and Weston Medical has already entered out-licensing agreements with Glaxo Wellcome, Hoffman-La Roche and Celltech/Medeva.

Another British invention on the fast-track to global success is SmartWater which was launched just a year after conception. SmartWater, a clear water-based liquid containing a cocktail of harmless coded chemicals similar to DNA profiles, can identify or authenticate anyone or anything - and is thus a powerful criminal deterrent. There are millions of coded combinations, each licensed to an individual. Codes are held on a secure database maintained by the Forensic Science Service, an agency of the Home Office.

Already installed as part of many corporate premises' burglar alarms and sprinkler systems, police forces both here and in the US and Australia use SmartWater. The product is also being applied to consumer products. Every new Honda motorcycle is sprayed with SmartWater and soon a leading lorry dealership and a well-known used car dealer will also be applying SmartWater to every vehicle it sells.

"The great thing about SmartWater is that it can't be steamed off or otherwise removed from a person or product," says SmartWater's joint managing director, Phil Cleary.

The BBC has been using new technology to create cutting-edge programmes such as its new six-part series, Walking With Dinosaurs. Photoreal, 3D computer graphic technology developed by the film industry, and researched by 100 experts in related fields, delivered a highly realistic representation of dinosaurs, accompanied by the BBC's familiar natural history documentary style. Since the programme went out in April, it has been avidly followed by millions through licensed agreements with broadcasting companies in over 40 countries and has won numerous awards, including three Emmys.

FireAnt is a pyrotechnic de-mining clearance system for use against anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Placed close to a mine and ignited, an imploding FireAnt burns at a temperature of 1,500C, blasting white-hot sparks through the mine casing.

The device burns the explosive contents inside the mine for 20 seconds; all that remains is the mine casing, which can then be safely handled. FireAnt is simple to use, transport and store and requires minimal training for effective use, so local war-zone communities can control their own de-mining programmes.

JetSCAN is another startling new device. It scans particles taken from engine oil samples from jet aircraft engines using electron microscopes and X-ray microanalysis. The machine can identify lubrication problems and detect certain types of engine failure before they occur.

Previously, oil particles had to be sent away to a specialist laboratory and analysed by skilled personnel. JetSCAN speeds results as it can be operated by on-the-spot engine technicians. These advantages over the existing system have led to JetSCAN being taken up by the RAF for all its Tornado flying operations worldwide. It is also being trialled for other RAF aircraft and has been certified by the US Air Force for use on its F16 fighters.

What links all these products is a clever and original idea that appeals to, and can be used by, a worldwide market. Rising to the Prime Minister's challenge last year has obviously paid off for some. But success stories don't come easy: bright ideas must be commercially viable to succeed. Phil Cleary of SmartWater emphasises design flexibility. "If you have a great idea, try to create something the public want in the format they need, rather than dictating your ideals to the public."

After that, take the advice of John Stones, managing director of Detectagas - and protect a product concept. "Patent your ideas, register a trademark, use confidentiality agreements with everyone concerned. And deal only with reputable companies," he says. "There are plenty of people out there ready to claim your idea as their own."

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